Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Tempest Tossed

Two books survey the ongoing psychic damage from Hurricane Katrina

Alex Balk


It has now been four years since the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina breeched the levees in and around New Orleans, producing the most widespread destruction that a major American city has suffered in the past century. At the time—nearly one year into George W. Bush's second term—the woeful government response appeared to distill the worst features of GOP small-government ideology, while dramatizing Bush's seeming indifference to the fortunes of the black, the poor, and city-dwelling Americans. Today, however, memories of Katrina and its aftermath have faded, and the moral of the story has gravitated into the familiar orbit of America's fatalistic view of urban affairs and government action—a regrettable study in civic mismanagement, combined with near-epidemic rates of violent crime.

In very different compasses, Ethan Brown's Shake the Devil Off and Dave Eggers's Zeitoun dispel that pall of resignation. Each book engages the personal ironies that attended Katrina's wake. Both are accounts of Katrina holdouts—storm survivors who disregarded mandatory evacuation orders from Mayor Ray Nagin and FEMA. Both are sensational chronicles of the way the storm frayed family relations and disfigured individual psyches—but both also serve to restore the broader sense of rage summoned by the no less dramatic spectacle of a national government forsaking its poorest citizens at a time of devastating need.

Shake the Devil Off recounts a sensation in the most lurid sense of the word: On October 17, 2006, Zackery Bowen, a twenty-eight-year-old part-time bartender and grocery-delivery boy, leaped to his death from the roof deck of the Omni Royal Hotel in the French Quarter. A suicide note in his pocket directed police to the nearby apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Addie Hall. Investigating officers found her dismembered corpse in various areas of the kitchen: her legs in the oven, her torso in the refrigerator, her hands and feet and her head in two parts on the stovetop.

The gruesomeness of the crime guaranteed that the story would make international news (and, predictably, inspire hundreds of headlines referencing the word gumbo; despite those insinuations, Bowen did not eat Hall). But thanks to their standing as cheerful Katrina holdouts (and, in all likelihood, their status as photogenic white New Orleans residents), the couple had had an earlier, far more uplifting tour through the news cycle, including an admiring 2005 front-page feature in the New York Times.

Brown neatly avoids the bipolar tabloid theme of a provisional triumph of the human spirit descending into sordid tragedy by painstakingly reconstructing Bowen's story from the beginning. A gangly child of divorce who never seemed quite comfortable in his own skin, Bowen drifted down to New Orleans in 1996. A year later, he had impregnated his stripper girlfriend. Bowen's awkwardness and insecurities are both glaring and heartbreaking; a note he wrote to his mother to inform her of his impending fatherhood included the sentence "I've made quite a few errors in my past and this is one of the biggest I've had to deal with." He was eighteen at the time. Two years later, the couple had a second child, and in an attempt to straighten out his life and support his young family, Bowen enlisted in the army the following year. He served in both Kosovo and the second Iraq war.

Brown uses Bowen's military service, and evident struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, as the narrative spine of Shake the Devil Off. "The story of Zack Bowen was not that of a voodoo-inspired, drugged-out French Quarter killer," Brown writes, "but of an Iraq veteran who could not cope with the memories of fighting in some of the most intense combat. . . . I found it hard to imagine a life that contained more of the tragedies of our era than that of a combat veteran who suffered the consequences of the federal government's disastrous policy decisions in both Baghdad and New Orleans."

This is surely an overstatement— one can easily point to any number of people whose lives are ruined by calamitous government decisions, both deliberately and not. It's clear that Bowen and his fellow soldiers experienced terrible psychological stresses that many still have not fully dealt with—and Brown, who tracked down many of those who served alongside Bowen in Iraq, does an admirable job of conveying the horrors of PTSD. However, the idea that what Bowen saw in the war, and then what he saw during Katrina, would lead him to commit a horrible murder and then jump from the rooftop bar of the Omni is too facile, and the book suffers from the weight of this organizing conceit.

Bowen, like so many people who wind up in the French Quarter, was something of a failure by conventional standards. This is often cause for camaraderie and celebration in the quarter, but his instability and his toxic relationship with Hall—described by even her best friends as impossibly moody—actually make for a more mundane psychological study. The two supply slight variations on the very common story of self-destructive people who only achieve their maximum potential to inflict damage when they finally connect. Bowen's story, in other words, draws at least as much of its moral from Sid and Nancy as it does from Full Metal Jacket.

Shake the Devil Off is most successful at describing the milieu in which Hall and Bowen lived. Brown conveys the sense of elation the two felt during the storm, when they had the city to themselves, and faithfully chronicles the growing desperation they felt in its aftermath, when their mundane reality returned. No one now would nominate Bowen and Hall as archetypes of New Orleans's civic spirit in the face of adversity, but Brown deftly summons up their immediate social world as a testament to how the city felt to certain residents on the ground in the wake of Katrina.

Dave Eggers's Zeitoun also depicts the struggles of a Katrina holdout, and this story, too, carries distinct echoes of recent American military adventures. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, born in a small Syrian fishing village, spent ten years traveling the world as a sailor before settling in the United States in 1988. A devout Muslim, Zeitoun married a Baton Rouge native and Muslim convert named Kathy Delphine. The two settled in New Orleans with their growing family; they operated a prosperous painting and contracting company and owned several rental properties. They were, and are, exemplars of the American dream in a way that Bowen and Hall could never be.

When the hurricane approached, Kathy took the children to her family's house in Baton Rouge while Zeitoun remained behind to keep an eye on his properties, as well as the homes and businesses of his neighbors and clients, as had been his routine in the city's other recent brushes with severe storms. But obviously Katrina was completely different. Zeitoun found himself stranded in a flooded city succumbing to a bizarre and anarchic form of martial law.

He spent the first few days after the levees broke floating about New Orleans in a canoe, rescuing those who were trapped and assessing the damage, which at that point was relatively minor. He tried to help whoever needed help, fed stranded neighborhood dogs from his own rations, and finally prepared to evacuate and meet up with his family, which he could communicate with sporadically via a working telephone in one of his rental properties. But a few days before his planned departure, he and three acquaintances at the rental house were met by a group of heavily armed, unidentified military and constabulary officials. The four men were arrested and transferred to a makeshift prison. At no point did their captors permit them to divulge their whereabouts— or, for that matter, to assure their relations and loved ones that they were still alive.

Zeitoun is a remarkable and chilling book. Credit here obviously goes to Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, who endured terrible uncertainty and the kind of violations that shake one's faith in this country's essential fairness under the law. But credit is also due to Eggers, who has fashioned the narrative with enormous skill. He relates the story entirely from the perspectives of Abdulrahman and Kathy. Initially, the spareness of the account is jarring, but the book's simplicity lulls the reader into a sense of wonder. The descriptions of the silent, vacated New Orleans Zeitoun navigates in his canoe are transfixing—and that, in turn, makes the feelings of horror that assail him upon his detention even more profound. The story might easily have descended into a kind of pulpy melodrama; Eggers's firm hand ensures that it is never less than riveting, and never overly dramatic.

Like many of the debacles of Katrina, Zeitoun's ordeal is ultimately a tale of staggering official incompetence—in this case, at the hands of frightened and untrained forces who were told to be suspicious of Muslim terrorists who might use a natural disaster to destabilize American morale. As such, this story makes a far better case against the Bush administration's venality and negligence than Bowen's tale does. Zeitoun is an account of a society gone badly wrong, and should, however briefly, shake you of your complacency. Though the Zeitouns have been reunited and find themselves somewhat recovered from their ordeal, they have not yet been made whole. And that, of course, renders them excellent stand-ins for the city of New Orleans.

Alex Balk is an editor of The Awl. He lives in New York.

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March 25, 2013
5:11 am

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Sahil

February 19, 2014
6:52 am

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